It only took one pairing of Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in the blockbuster musical "The Producers" for theatergoers to decree them the most endearing Broadway-linked couple since the Lunts. So what happened? Someone came up with the idea to pair them again in the old and tired Neil Simon comedy "The Odd Couple." Look at it this way. It will undoubtedly serve the producers and investors well. It will, however, make many patrons, some of whom who are plunking down big bucks (rumor is that tickets are going for $800), wonder what possessed them to think it was going to be fun.
We all may wonder why a more exciting and worthy vehicle wasn’t picked for their reunion. I caught a production of Stephen Sondheim’s "Bounce" in Chicago (it sadly never made it to New York) the summer before last. That literate and provocative musical (yes, it had problems to work through) about two unscrupulous scheming brothers would have been perfect for Lane and Broderick, and their incomparable presence would have given the musical just what it needed and didn’t have.
I know, I know, the 1965 comedy "The Odd Couple" was a great favorite in its time, including all the subsequent stock, regional, and community productions, a successful 1968 film, and the long-running 1970s TV series. The idea of two middle-aged New York males – one a compulsive slob and the other an obsessive neurotic – sharing an apartment certainly has possibilities. But as realized by Simon, their infernal and progressively tiresome squabbling isn’t enough to sustain the comedy’s single situation for very long. Sharper and more honest insights into male relationships, whether straight, gay, or closeted, have become the norm in virtually all the various entertainment mediums. One might have hoped that director Joe Mantello and Simon reconsider (why not a major rewrite?) aspects of the play and the characters for changing contemporary tastes. But, they have let it roll bumpily along like a threadbare retread.
Lane has the more enviable role as Oscar Madison, the divorced sportscaster who has no interest in being neat and tidy, but plenty of interest in the late night poker games he hosts in his garbage-littered eight-room apartment on Riverside Drive. The role of Oscar affords Lane plenty of opportunities to further explore and exploit his comedic range, as uniquely his as it has been inimitably perfected. No piece of shtick gets unrealized as we watch the highly energized Lane virtually push and pull the surprisingly ineffectual Broderick through scene after scene.
Even with due consideration to the more anal-retentive personality that propels Felix Ungar, Broderick doesn’t summon up much more than the image of a benignly idiosyncratic nerd as he copes with his impending divorce as well as with Oscar’s total annoyance at his wife-like takeover of the apartment. He quickly becomes as irritating to Oscar as he does to us, as he zombies around the stage contemplating either suicide or what to do about his burnt London broil. One can only feel a profound regret that a more artistically investigative approach could have been found to make this one-liner drenched comedy resonate with more substance. If you do go, think about Lane and Broderick switching roles. That’s one way to get through it.
Set designer John Lee Beatty has the pleasure of turning a messy sprawling apartment into a designer showplace in Act II (with help from the glow of Kenneth Posner’s lighting), much to the dismay of Oscar’s poker pals. Curiously, it’s the opening moments in the comedy and before Lane or Broderick intrude that remain the most skillfully and comically realized. Helping to validate this are dense cop Murray (Bard Garrett, recognizable as Robert Barone from Everybody Loves Raymond), impatient Speed (Rob Barlett), timid Vinnie (Lee Wilkof), and accountant Roy (Peter Frechette), as they tease and torment each other unmercifully as their card game progresses in stalls and starts. Only Frechette seems ill-at-ease and miscast, despite the fact that he is also understudy to Broderick.
Invited up to Oscar and Felix’s apartment for dinner and what-have-you are apartment dwellers Great Britain-born Pidgeon sisters played with much twittering, cooing, and chirping by Olivia d’Abo and Jessica Stone. This scene, in which Broderick breaks down as he shares photos of his family to the sisters, encourages a genuinely affecting and also funny emotional breakthrough for the three of them, and the one scene in which Broderick expresses more than a one-dimensional Felix.
– Simon Saltzman
The Odd Couple, Brooks Atkinson Theater, 256 West 47th Street. 212-307-4100.
If you are a fan of the American opera "Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," you may have seen the excellent Princeton Festival production last summer. But that should, in no way deter you from seeing the incredible newly-envisioned staging (the first Broadway revival in 16 years) of Stephen Sondheim’s grandly gruesome masterwork. This excitingly audacious production, as staged by British director and designer John Doyle, is a facsimile of the one recently staged in London by the Watermill Theater.
It boasts two especially innovative elements. The first is the concept that everything we are seeing is emanating from the mind of a madman. The second is the multitasking of an extraordinary company of 10, required to sing, act, and play their own instruments. They include a mesmerizing Michael Cerveris in the title role of the revengeful barber and Patti Lupone as his relentless abettor. As the entrepreneurial Mrs. Lovett, Lupone’s terrific performance is defined by her unbridled passion for Todd as expressed through a funny yet tough-as-nails facade that suggests a character out of Brecht or Weill.
There is a definite Brechtian subversive tone to the proceedings, not the least of which is having Todd rise from a coffin in a place that looks like a bakery in purgatory. Here the principals reside, forever part of a chorus of ghoulish figures, each one lingering and hungering to forever replay and play (don’t forget the instruments) their tragedy. I’ll bet that this is the first season in history to boast two musical theater title characters that rise from a coffin, as we anticipate the arrival of Lestat this spring. It doesn’t take long to see that we are experiencing the story and seeing the characters through the dementia of Tobias (Manoel Feliciano), Sweeney’s naive assistant, now an inmate, however proficient he is on the violin, clarinet and keyboard, in an institution for the criminally insane.
The company has not only dug deep into their demanding, grotesquely imagined roles, including the chorus, but also prove excellent instrumentalists. That’s right. You’ll see amorally disposed Lupone not only baking those decidedly non-kosher pies but puffing away on a tuba that she hauls around as well as bells and percussion, as the situation invites. No matter whom you have heard sing the role of Mrs. Lovett, Lupone puts a demented twist and a whole new dimension to such humorous arias as "A Little Priest" and "The Worst Pies in London." And you’ve never heard "By the Sea" given such a delectably insinuating spin.
Cerveris’s bloody mastery of his arias – raised a level to be sung by a baritone – is as dramatically effective as his mastery with a guitar and, of course, with a razor. There is something to be said for a cast that can balance the musical’s vocal and dramatic requirements with its instrumental demands (mercifully only rarely united at the same time). As the thwarted lovers, Anthony and Lauren, Benjamin Magnuson and Lauren Molina saw away as passionately on their cellos as they do on our emotions. Magnuson not only does justice to the ravishing aria "Joanna," but with Molina embrace their duet "We Kiss" with a memorably disquieting sense of desperation.
There is the expected lewdness in the Beggar Woman as played by Diana Dimarzio and as expressed in her unexpectedly virtuoso playing of the clarinet. Mark Jacoby plays a sweet trumpet but he is as sinister as you would expect as Judge Turpin. Donna Lynne Champlin moves exactingly from the accordion to the keyboard to the flute without losing her flair for splitting hairs as the rival barber Piretti. Alexander Gemignani is thankfully not as treacherous on the keyboard and trumpet as he is as the Beadle. And John Arbo, as Jonas Fogg, slaps his bass with a vengeance. But this is no mere gimmick but part of a stunning re-conception that makes the transfer from its literal conventions to the more surreal world of the mentally deranged with stunning acumen.
Despite necessitating the diminishment of the more grandiose musical values the impact of the score’s lyrics are heightened. Seeing the horrifying incidents come alive through the eyes and mind of the pathetic Tobias adds scary nuances to the already nightmarish story. Feliciano’s poignant performance is as palpable as is the ghoulish presence of the other characters, all of whom remain on stage throughout. It’s a sight you won’t soon forget.
Although Doyle’s diversion takes enough liberties with the original 1979 production to set a few purists teeth on edge, those willing to see it from a startling new perspective will undoubtedly be mesmerized by these same liberties. The best news is that the essentials of Grand Guignol remain intact. The tale of a London barber who goes bonkers after escaping from an unjust imprisonment imposed by a lecherous judge with a covetous eye for the barber’s wife and daughter remains as eerie as ever. Book-ended by the company’s advising us to "Attend the Tale of Sweeney Todd," this production achieves its concerted intention to shock us and to stir us from the expected.
– Simon Saltzman